1 Samuel 5
Threatened with Mass Death
Once the Philistines had seized the Chest of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod, brought it into the shrine of Dagon, and placed it alongside the idol of Dagon.
Next morning when the citizens of Ashdod got up, they were shocked to find Dagon toppled from his place, flat on his face before the Chest of God. They picked him up and put him back where he belonged. First thing the next morning they found him again, toppled and flat on his face before the Chest of God. Dagon’s head and arms were broken off, strewn across the entrance. Only his torso was in one piece. (That’s why even today, the priests of Dagon and visitors to the Dagon shrine in Ashdod avoid stepping on the threshold.)
God was hard on the citizens of Ashdod. He devastated them by hitting them with tumors. This happened in both the town and the surrounding neighborhoods. He let loose rats among them. Jumping from ships there, rats swarmed all over the city! And everyone was deathly afraid.
When the leaders of Ashdod saw what was going on, they decided, “The chest of the god of Israel has got to go. We can’t handle this, and neither can our god Dagon.” They called together all the Philistine leaders and put it to them: “How can we get rid of the chest of the god of Israel?”
The leaders agreed: “Move it to Gath.” So they moved the Chest of the God of Israel to Gath.
But as soon as they moved it there, God came down hard on that city, too. It was mass hysteria! He hit them with tumors. Tumors broke out on everyone in town, young and old.
So they sent the Chest of God on to Ekron, but as the Chest was being brought into town, the people shouted in protest, “You’ll kill us all by bringing in this Chest of the God of Israel!” They called the Philistine leaders together and demanded, “Get it out of here, this Chest of the God of Israel. Send it back where it came from. We’re threatened with mass death!” For everyone was scared to death when the Chest of God showed up. God was already coming down very hard on the place. Those who didn’t die were hit with tumors. All over the city cries of pain and lament filled the air.
1 Samuel 6
Gold Tumors and Rats
After the Chest of God had been among the Philistine people for seven months, the Philistine leaders called together their religious professionals, the priests, and experts on the supernatural for consultation: “How can we get rid of this Chest of God, get it off our hands without making things worse? Tell us!”
They said, “If you’re going to send the Chest of the God of Israel back, don’t just dump it on them. Pay compensation. Then you will be healed. After you’re in the clear again, God will let up on you. Why wouldn’t he?”
“And what exactly would make for adequate compensation?”
“Five gold tumors and five gold rats,” they said, “to match the number of Philistine leaders. Since all of you—leaders and people—suffered the same plague, make replicas of the tumors and rats that are devastating the country and present them as an offering to the glory of the God of Israel. Then maybe he’ll ease up and not be so hard on you and your gods, and on your country. Why be stubborn like the Egyptians and Pharaoh? God didn’t quit pounding on them until they let the people go. Only then did he let up.
“So here’s what you do: Take a brand-new oxcart and two cows that have never been in harness. Hitch the cows to the oxcart and send their calves back to the barn. Put the Chest of God on the cart. Secure the gold replicas of the tumors and rats that you are offering as compensation in a sack and set them next to the Chest. Then send it off. But keep your eyes on it. If it heads straight back home to where it came from, toward Beth Shemesh, it is clear that this catastrophe is a divine judgment, but if not, we’ll know that God had nothing to do with it—it was just an accident.”
So that’s what they did: They hitched two cows to the cart, put their calves in the barn, and placed the Chest of God and the sack of gold rats and tumors on the cart. The cows headed straight for home, down the road to Beth Shemesh, straying neither right nor left, mooing all the way. The Philistine leaders followed them to the outskirts of Beth Shemesh.
The people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley. They looked up and saw the Chest. Jubilant, they ran to meet it. The cart came into the field of Joshua, a Beth Shemeshite, and stopped there beside a huge boulder. The harvesters tore the cart to pieces, then chopped up the wood and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to God. The Levites took charge of the Chest of God and the sack containing the gold offerings, placing them on the boulder. Offering the sacrifices, everyone in Beth Shemesh worshiped God most heartily that day.
When the five Philistine leaders saw what they came to see, they returned the same day to Ekron.
The five gold replicas of the tumors were offered by the Philistines in compensation for the cities of Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. The five gold rats matched the number of Philistine towns, both large and small, ruled by the five leaders. The big boulder on which they placed the Chest of God is still there in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, a landmark.
If You Are Serious About Coming Back to God
God struck some of the men of Beth Shemesh who, out of curiosity, irreverently peeked into the Chest of God. Seventy died. The whole town was in mourning, reeling under the hard blow from God, and questioning, “Who can stand before God, this holy God? And who can we get to take this Chest off our hands?”
They sent emissaries to Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the Chest of God. Come down and get it.”
1 Samuel 7
And they did. The men of Kiriath Jearim came and got the Chest of God and delivered it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. They ordained his son, Eleazar, to take responsibility for the Chest of God.
From the time that the Chest came to rest in Kiriath Jearim, a long time passed—twenty years it was—and throughout Israel there was a widespread, fearful movement toward God.
Then Samuel addressed the house of Israel: “If you are truly serious about coming back to God, clean house. Get rid of the foreign gods and fertility goddesses, ground yourselves firmly in God, worship him and him alone, and he’ll save you from Philistine oppression.”
They did it. They got rid of the gods and goddesses, the images of Baal and Ashtoreth, and gave their exclusive attention and service to God.
Next Samuel said, “Get everybody together at Mizpah and I’ll pray for you.”
So everyone assembled at Mizpah. They drew water from the wells and poured it out before God in a ritual of cleansing. They fasted all day and prayed, “We have sinned against God.”
So Samuel prepared the Israelites for holy war there at Mizpah.
The Place Where God Helped Us
When the Philistines heard that Israel was meeting at Mizpah, the Philistine leaders went on the offensive. Israel got the report and became frightened—Philistines on the move again!
They pleaded with Samuel, “Pray with all your might! And don’t let up! Pray to God, our God, that he’ll save us from the boot of the Philistines.”
Samuel took a young lamb not yet weaned and offered it whole as a Whole-Burnt-Offering to God. He prayed fervently to God, interceding for Israel. And God answered.
While Samuel was offering the sacrifice, the Philistines came within range to fight Israel. Just then God thundered, a huge thunderclap exploding among the Philistines. They panicked—mass confusion!—and ran helter-skelter from Israel. Israel poured out of Mizpah and gave chase, killing Philistines right and left, to a point just beyond Beth Car. Samuel took a single rock and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it “Ebenezer” (Rock of Help), saying, “This marks the place where God helped us.”
The Philistines learned their lesson and stayed home—no more border crossings. God was hard on the Philistines all through Samuel’s lifetime. All the cities from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored. Israel also freed the surrounding countryside from Philistine control. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
Samuel gave solid leadership to Israel his entire life. Every year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah. He gave leadership to Israel in each of these places. But always he would return to Ramah, where he lived, and preside from there. That is where he built an altar to God.